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Archive for the 'Cerys Bradley' Category

Cerys Bradley: My Last Blog Post

By uctzcbr, on 14 June 2019

In April, I had my last shift at the UCL Art Museum . Last week I had my last shift in the Petrie Museum, next week will be my last shift ever at the Grant Museum. After nearly four and a half years, I’ve finally finished studying at UCL – I passed my PhD viva yesterday and am a few minor edits away from graduation.  As working as a student engager has been one of the best things about studying at UCL, I wanted to use this blog post to talk about some of my favourite moments on the job and the things I have learned because of this programme.

Let’s start with my favourite engagements. It was difficult to narrow down the list but I have chosen three, one from each museum. Before I tell you them, I would like to award a “highly commended” prize to the time I spent twenty minutes talking to two visitors in the Grant about how dead baby pigs are used in research in my department before finding out they were vegan. You can read more about the encounter here.

When I started working in the UCL Art Museum, I was incredibly apprehensive – I know nothing about art. My background is in mathematics and the staff in the museum kindly spent a lot of time searching through their catalogue to find related pieces I could talk about (to no avail). So I learned a few facts about Flaxman, the man whose works began the collection, and started offering to take visitors to the Flaxman gallery and the Housman room (a room that hosts several of UCL’s best pieces that should be on public display but are now hidden behind a key-card access only door).

On one of my shifts, a mother and daughter came to the museum. They had just moved to Reading from Pakistan and the daughter wasn’t getting on too well at school. She loved art class so her mum had brought her to London for the day to tour some art galleries. They were a little underwhelmed by our small print room (there wasn’t an exhibition on at the time) so I took them to the Flaxman gallery which displays casts and prototypes of some of the funerary monuments that Flaxman designed and sculpted. Flaxman worked during the British occupation of India and incorporated Indian burial iconography in his work. I learned this from the visitors who explained to me what the specific positions of the figures in the casts and their clothing signified about their lives. The visitors were excited to connect with the work and I learned a lot from them; it was an interaction which really demonstrated how positive the engagement programme could be.

UCL Flaxman Gallery and sculpture

The Flaxman Gallery at UCL

It is at the Grant Museum that I discovered the incredibleness of bats. Once again, I had to work hard with the staff at the museum to identify a way of connecting my research background with the collection. I started talking about the bats because a student in my department did her Master’s project about them. She is an environmental crime researcher (that encompasses both crimes committed against the environment and crimes committed by animals) and used her Master’s dissertation to investigate the destruction of bat habitats in the UK.

When on shift, I would hover by the bat specimens and use them to talk about my colleague’s research and, then, how we study crime in our department more generally. When I wasn’t talking to visitors I would idly google interesting facts about bats. They are now my favourite animals – I have two bat tattoos and a bat detector so I can determine the species of bats on Hampstead Heath.

One of my favourite facts to share with visitors is how much bats eat. Insectivore bats can eat up to 7 times their own body weight in insects in one night and fruit bats can eat up to twice their own body weight. I often tell this fact to children and ask them if they can imagine eating twice their own body weight in their favourite fruit. On one occasion, I asked a small boy (whose favourite food was cherries) how much fruit that would be. He asked his mum how much he weighed and then carefully counted two times 22 kg on his fingers before answering, very sincerely, 44 kg. His parents were extremely proud.

This is my favourite bat in the Grant Museum, I think he looks like a mob boss doing a really big laugh

When I work in the Petrie Museum, I talk about two things: the pot burial and Amelia Edwards. Three if you count helping children find the pink pyramids hidden in the displays. I like talking about the pot burial because we know so little about it and it’s a brilliant object for explaining to children the mechanics and limitations of archaeology.

When children approach the object, I ask them if they were an archaeologist and they found a skeleton in a pot, what questions would they try to answer. They nearly always ask the same three questions: “who was this person?”, “how did they die?”, and “why are they in a pot?”. Then we try to answer the questions together. On one occasion a tiny child looked me dead in the eye and declared that the person had died when they were hit on the head and all their blood had run out down their face (this was acted out for emphasis). The small child then went and did some colouring and I have had nightmares ever since (not really).

The pot burial in the Petrie Museum

Every instance of talking to a child about the pot burial becomes a favourite engagement at the Petrie. I enjoy observing their curiosity and creativity. It is even more fun when they come to terms with the idea that we just don’t know the complete answer to some questions and so they get to make up their own stories.

I have worked three Saturdays a month nearly every month for the past three years and experienced hundreds of engagements with visitors of UCL’s museums. I have learned a lot about their lives and about the collections, I have grown more confident talking to strangers, I have gotten better at explaining scientific concepts and I have discovered a thousand ways to say, “I have absolutely no idea, let’s google it”.

This is my final blogpost, which is why it is long and overtly sentimental, but I wanted to sign off by saying thank you to the UCL Student Engager’s programme for the huge, positive impact it has had on my time here at UCL.


My Imaginary Friends in the Petrie Museum

By uctzcbr, on 8 June 2018

In the Petrie Museum there is a rather spectacular display cabinet containing 8 of the Fayum Mummy Portraits from the museum’s collection. These are portraits of the deceased, painted on wooden boards and placed on the mummified remains of respected elders, dear friends, and loved ones. These objects in particular are from a collection of 146 such portraits that were found and taken by Flinders Petrie from the Hawara Cemetery in 1888. They are some of my favourite objects in the museum’s collection because of how beautifully preserved they are and how well they connect visitors to the people who we now study.

Fayum Portraits are a burial practice from the Graeco-Roman Period (c. 332 BC – 395 AD) that has been found in excavation sites across Ancient Egypt but particularly in the Faiyum Basin, which is just West of the Nile and South of Cairo. They are thought to have originated during the Roman occupation of Egypt and exist in a long tradition of preserving the image of the deceased upon their death. This tradition includes death masks that were used in the process of mummification in Ancient Egypt but also for references for sculptors in the Middle Ages and then later as an aid to identify unknown corpses. Roman Images were small impressions or masks of the deceased that were kept in the family home alongside inscriptions of their achievements. In Victorian England, death portraits were photographs taken the day after death and provided a memento mori for families to help them remember what their loved one looked like.

Mummy Portrait UC19609 (I tried to write an amusing caption for this image but couldn’t really see past the monobrow, which I imagine wasn’t as much of a talking point during their lifetime).

What I love about the Fayum portraits is how full of life they are. The subjects are painted with their eyes open and their faces full of personality. In much the same way, the subjects of Victorian death portraits were positioned as if playing or interacting with living family members. I think the Fayum portraits show that the desire to see someone you were close to alive again—and to remember them as they were before they passed—is one that transcends time period and culture creating a strong connection to the people who lived two and a half millennia ago.

When the museum is quiet, I like to look at the portraits and imagine the people they depict. I haven’t yet reached the point of actually talking to them, but I have constructed personalities, preferences, and opinions for each. Especially in the context of the Petrie Museum, where you are surrounded by objects held and used by people who lived in Ancient Egypt and Kush, I think you get a unique reminder that the contents of museums like this one were made by and for real people.

Mummy Portrait UC30081 giving you some serious side eye.

The displays in the Petrie Museum showcase many different aspects of everyday life, from small things like cooking and catching rats, to grander ideas of religion and law. As amazing as that is, I think the idea that you can actually look into the eyes of someone who lived in Ancient Egypt is one of the best experiences that a visit to the museum can give you.

An Evening Dealing Out “Justice”

By Arendse I Lund, on 4 April 2018

Last week, we held our first event of 2018 in the UCL Art Museum where three of us PhD students — Josie Mills, Cerys Bradley, and myself — all approached the topic of “justice” from different perspectives and vastly different disciplines.

Josie speaking about the Neanderthals

Josie spoke about the idea of justice amongst the Neanderthals and what theories scholars have for any type of justice system in the Palaeolithic era. By talking about the factors we need for a crime to happen, she described from an archaeological view whether or not there was rock solid evidence for a Palaeolithic justice system. Turns out, there isn’t — at least not yet!

She drew comparisons to the modern Inuit justice system, and discussed whether they could tell us anything about tribal justice at large. Taking questions from the audience, Josie disabused us of the notion that Neanderthals are completely different from modern humans or that they ran around bashing each other on the head with rocks. This is a topic she’s well accustomed to discussing; she has also written extensively on Palaeolithic burial practices and cannibalism amongst the Neanderthals.

Arendse speaking about the Anglo-Saxon concept of justice

Skipping from the Neanderthals to the Anglo-Saxons, I followed Josie’s talk with a discussion of justice in the year 600 CE. This was the year that King Æthelbert of Kent issued his law code. With its long list of clauses, Æthelbert’s law code was a comprehensive list of how to calculate the appropriate amount to pay someone if you wrong them somehow. This would theoretically make it easier to police crimes as families are paid off for their relative’s injury and therefore don’t need to attack in retaliation and start a blood feud.

As everyone arrived for the talk, they had been handed a piece of paper with an attack on a victim, the social status of those involved, or the location of the attack. I now invited the audience to play a game with me. We would attack a hypothetical Edwin of Kent and see what happened. For example, laming Edwin’s shoulder would cost us 30 shillings in the year 600 (an enormous sum). If Edwin was a freeman and our attack killed him, we would have to pay his family 100 shillings, broken up into two installments: 20 shillings at Edwin’s open grave, where a blood feud might erupt, and the remaining 80 shillings within the next 40 days. The location where we murder Edwin is also important in calculating how much we have to pay because through our actions, we might accidentally have insulted someone else. If our attack was on the king’s estate, then we would have to pay an additional 50 shillings to the Æthelbert for disrupting the peace.

Cards to “attack” poor Edwin of Kent

The goal of this exercise was to show how expensive it was to injure or murder someone. But because of this exhaustive list of fines, for the first time in Anglo-Saxon law there are recognized crimes and standardized punishments, and there will theoretically be fewer blood feuds. The audience engaged with this talk and I received excellent feedback encouraging me to do another one in this style.


Cerys giving an overview of 21st-century justice

Jumping from the Anglo-Saxons to modern policing, Cerys spoke about attempting to enforce justice in the age of the Dark Net. As a doctoral student in the crime and security science department, Cerys studies people who buy drugs on the internet and how they react to different law enforcement interventions. In a fascinating discussion, Cerys showed how far we’ve come in policing crime but also how the modern justice system has not caught up with anonymous internet crime.

We moved from one-on-one crime with very little evidence of a justice system with the Neanderthals, to recognized crimes with standardized punishment for the Anglo-Saxons, to anonymized crime which doesn’t always have a standardized punishment in our modern world of the Dark Net. These types of interdisciplinary talks with different approaches to a common theme is something that excites me the most about working as part of the Student Engager team. It provides me greater insight into my own research by hearing about the resources and approaches of other disciplines.

At the end of the evening, we asked our audience members for feedback and to vote on which justice system they’d most like to live under. To my great surprise, the Anglo-Saxons won!


Event: What do you need to create a justice system?

By Arendse I Lund, on 14 March 2018

What do you need to create a justice system, an evening of short talks by UCL’s student engagers, will be taking place on Tuesday, 20 March 2018, UCL Art Museum 6:30-8pm


Our upcoming event “What do you need to create a justice system?” is next Tuesday — come join us for an evening of short talks focussed on the justice systems, or lack thereof, in early farming communities, amongst the Anglo-Saxons, and in the Dark Net. Think there’s no connection at all between these disparate time periods? You might be surprised!



The speakers are:

Josie Mills – a third-year PhD in Archaeology at UCL specialising in applying scientific techniques, like mass spectrometry, to understand more about stone tools made by Neanderthals. She’s particularly interested in how we, as modern humans, perceive prehistoric behaviour and the division we draw between us and other species.

Arendse Lund – a PhD student in the UCL English department. She traces the development of an Old English legal language and how rulers use this legal terminology to shape perceptions of their authority. She is funded by the London Arts and Humanities Partnership.

Cerys Bradley – a PhD student in the crime and security science department at UCL. They study the people who buy drugs on the internet and how they react to different law enforcement interventions.

The event is being hosted in the UCL Art Museum, an intimate space in what used to be the old print room. The three talks are 15 minutes each and are followed by questions. Then attendees are welcome to join the presenters for a wine reception. No booking is necessary but space is limited.

We look forward to seeing you there!

LGBTQ History Month 2018

By uctzcbr, on 2 February 2018

This month it’s LGBTQ History Month, a month to celebrate and remember LGBTQ icons and heroes. The month is a vital event that reminds us LGBTQ people exist, have always existed, and should be celebrated. So, for this week’s blog post (which is, fortuitously, my responsibility) I would like to talk about an important figure from the history of both UCL and the LGBTQ community.

Amelia Edwards was a novelist, a philanthropist, an adventurer and an all-round remarkable woman. She wrote her first story at just 12 and went to write ghost stories and best-selling tales of bigamy. She also wrote about her exciting travels across the world in publicly acclaimed and hand-illustrated books. It was on one of these travels that she became committed to protecting the history and ancient artefacts of Egypt.

This bust of Amelia Edwards can be found in the Petrie Museum

Inspired by her trip down the Nile and appalled by the ransacking and destruction of Egyptian monuments and historical sites, Edwards founded the Egyptian Exploratory Fund in 1882. Through this organisation she funded many of Flinders Petrie’s digs and amassed a great collection of antiquities which she donated to UCL upon her death. It is thanks to her that UCL boasts such a large collection of important museum objects.

But, it is not just Edwards’ work that makes her so remarkable. She was also a lesbian at a time when it was thought that those kinds of women just did not exist. Of all the things that make Amelia Edwards so inspirational, I think the fact that she openly travelled and, then lived, with her partner Ellen Drew Braysher during the 19th century is certainly high on the list.

Edwards died in April of 1892, just a few months after her partner and they are buried side by side in St Mary’s Church, Henbury (in Bristol). Their graves are now listed sites, recognising them as important figures in this country’s LGBT history. This, perhaps, goes part way to rectify the designation of Braysher as Edwards’ “beloved friend” as stated on her gravestone.

In her lifetime, it was likely that the nature of Edwards and Braysher’s relationship was not acknowledged or accepted by many. Indeed, even now, when reading about Edwards’ life, Braysher is more frequently referred to as a companion, or friend, and not as a partner, a lover, or a girlfriend. I was excited to discover that Amelia Edwards shared her life with a woman, as I always am to find other lesbians, and so feel particularly enthused to discuss her legacy and her life with visitors of the Petrie Museum as I want her relationship to be recognised and remembered for what it actually was. You can read more about Amelia Edwards’ life here in a blog post written by Dr Alice Stevenson for International Women’s Day.

This Little Piggy went to Market…

By uctzcbr, on 6 December 2017

One of the objects on display as part of the Grant’s Ordinary Animals exhibition is a jar of piglets. These particular specimens often receive a lot of attention, probably because the piglets are so small and visitors are surprised to discover what they are. I was happy to see them included in the exhibition because piglets are used by other researchers in my department (the Department of Crime and Security Science) and so they provide a useful launching pad to engage visitors in my research.

The specimen in question, courtesy of the Grant Museum.

This tactic has had varying success. The way pigs are used in Crime Research is fascinating but can also be a bit gruesome — perhaps too gruesome for some visitors. Pig skin, and flesh, is similar to that of humans and so can be used to conduct experiments in the absence of a human cadaver. For example, a colleague, Sian Smith, whose PhD research focuses on 3-D digitisation methods for sharp-force traumas, studies stab wounds she has made in pigs. A number of her experiments have required her to transport pig parts to Mile End cemetery where they are buried and left to decompose before being photographed so that the images can be used to create 3-D models. Her work has potential applications in crime scene forensics, as well as for providing evidence in court, or even archaeological research on burial sites and other human remains.

I think this story is fascinating and can start many different conversations about how crime research is conducted and used. But, I have learned very quickly not all visitors feel the same way. For example, I made the mistake of telling this exact tale to a pair of visitors who were vegan. Concerned by the use of living things in order to meet the needs of humans, they were not very impressed by this particular research project. Perhaps, I should have guessed that they were not my target audience. Whilst I have met many visitors in the museum who have backgrounds in forensics or who like to preserve animal remains as a hobby, many more visitors haven’t ever seen anything like the Grant Museum’s collection outside the museum itself. I now make sure I check with visitors whether or not they want all the gory details before launching into my stories.

It is worth pointing out, however, that a reason that piglets are often used in research is because it is not uncommon for mothers to kill their young accidentally (by rolling over on them) leaving farmers or other pig owners with piglets that they cannot raise but can sell to labs instead. The vegan visitors that I spoke to felt that — as the pigs were not killed for the purpose of research — it seemed reasonable to use their bodies in this manner. Incidentally, both visitors were organ donors and intended to leave their own bodies to science. We spent a great deal more time discussing the use of animals in scientific, but non-medical, research which made for very interesting chat, if not exactly where I saw the conversation from the start.

Add Like an (Ancient) Egyptian

By uctzcbr, on 12 October 2017

As student engagers, we work in each of the museums no matter how far from our own disciplines they are. I study cybercrime which is not clearly related zoology, art, or Egyptology; as a result, I have received many looks of surprise from visitors when they discover someone working in the museum is not an expert in the subject matter. To be a better student engager, I have learned a lot about the history of each museum and researched many objects so that I can answer questions and provide useful information to visitors, but I also like to talk about subjects related to my discipline. For the Grant Museum, this means talking about a study which looked at the trade (or lack thereof) of endangered animal souvenirs on the Dark Net; for the Art Museum, I talk about an art exhibition displaying objects purchased at random from Dark Net Markets. However, I have always struggled to link my research to Archaeology and the objects at the Petrie.

Instead, I like to talk about my undergraduate degree: Mathematics. There is evidence that the Ancient Egyptians had not only a counting system but prolifically and pragmatically used Mathematics. Records show that they used maths for accounting, architecture, and astronomy, amongst other things. Their techniques enabled a complex tax system and were even adopted by Greek mathematicians such as Pythagoras.

Papyrus showing mathematical calculations in Hieratic script.

Papyrus showing mathematical calculations in Hieratic script.

However, Egyptian mathematics was very different to that which we use today. Whilst they also used a base 10 system, at first they only had symbols for the numbers 1, 10, 100, 1,000, 10,000 and 100,000. This made writing numbers sometimes laborious – to write the number 7, you would need to write the hieroglyph for the number 1 seven times. The numbers 2-9 were added later after they began writing on papyrus using the Hieratic script instead of Hieroglyphs.  Fractions were denoted using a specific symbol and could only be of the form 1 , with a 1 as the numerator. This system made addition and subtraction simple but other tasks, such as multiplication, much more complex.

To do these more complex computations, the Ancient Egyptians would combine addition and subtraction in brute force methods that would provide approximations of the answer. For example, to multiply two numbers together, they would add the first number to itself the second number of times in a process of doubling not unlike the way computers are now programmed to do. As an illustration, to calculate 3 × 4 they would double 3 (that is 3 × 2) and then double 3 again (that is 3 ×(2+2)=3 ×4.

They would also rely on pre-calculated times tables to increase the speed of their work and prevent them from having to repeat the same problems again and again. This is believed to be the case because some of these tables have survived to today. For example, object UC32159 is a section of papyrus that displays division tables containing the answers to 2 being divided by the odd numbers from 3 to 31.

Remains of papyrus showing the division of 2, written in Hieratic script.

Remains of papyrus showing the division of 2, written in Hieratic script.

The collections in each of UCL’s museums are so large and varied that there will always be something relevant and of interest to anyone who visits.

Question of the Week: Bird vs Reptile

By uctzcbr, on 8 September 2017

Yesterday, in the Grant Museum, I was asked why reptile and bird eggs are different. I did not know that reptile and bird eggs were different, let alone why. I have now investigated this question and prepared a pretty egg-cellent answer (if I do say so myself).

Bird eggs and reptile eggs are different in a couple of ways (besides the fact that one comes out and contains reptiles and the other birds). They can differ in shape, shell, and colour. These differences are not universal across the classes and science cannot explain why all of the differences have occurred, so this answer isn’t going to be egg-xact but I will try and be as thorough as possible.

So, first, the egg shape. Reptiles have symmetrical eggs where as some birds lay eggs which are, well, egg-shaped: i.e. asymmetrical as they are tapered at one end. A popular explanation for why bird eggs are often this shape is that it prevents them from rolling off of cliffs as they, instead, roll in a circle. However an enormous study conducted at Princeton University has provided data to debunk this theory. The study, which examined almost 50,000 eggs from more than 1,400 species found a correlation between the egg shape and wing shape in bird species. This points to the egg shape to more likely being a product of a bird’s flight adaptation than where they nest. You can read the study here.

The second distinction is in the shell – birds lay eggs with hard shells where as some reptile species lay soft-shelled eggs. Why might be the case? Well, if a mother cannot lay a hard-shelled egg at its full size, it could lay a soft-shelled egg instead allowing the egg to eggspand (not the technical term) after laying. Additionally, a soft shell has the capacity to absorb moisture from the atmosphere and ground. For some reasons, birds have evolved such that their eggs don’t need additional moisture, which is not the case for some species of reptiles. For the opposite reason, some turtle species will lay hard shelled eggs if they also lay their eggs in wet environments as this stops the egg absorbing too much moisture.

Another reason reptiles lay soft-shelled eggs is because of the way they are incubated. Birds will sit on their eggs and use the warmth of their bodies but reptiles tend to utilise the natural heat of vegetation or the earth to incubate their eggs. As reptile eggs don’t have to be strong enough to protect the unborn contents from the full weight of its parent, they can be soft-shelled.

Finally, most reptile eggs are white in colour whereas bird eggs are lots

A pretty symmetrical looking Ostrich Egg (Ostriches, famously, not great flyers).

A pretty symmetrical looking Ostrich Egg (Ostriches, famously, not great flyers).

of different, some would say eggstraordinary, colours. As with the shape, science cannot prove a definitive answer for why this is the case. However, there is a theory which has, in part, been developed by comparing reptile and bird eggs. Bird eggs are often kept in much more conspicuous places than reptile eggs – in open nests as opposed to buried underground or hidden in a crevice. As such, bird eggs can benefit from camouflaging to their surroundings, which would require them to come in a wider variety of colours.

So, there you have it, for the most part, eggs is eggs. However, reptile and bird species have evolved different characteristics specific to their environment. If you have any more questions, come visit the Grant Museum or tweet them at us.

The Grossest (Coolest) Things in the Grant

By uctzcbr, on 23 June 2017

The female Surinam Toad grows her young in small sacks on her back. To impregnate her, her male partner will inseminate her eggs and then lob (not the technical term) those eggs into her back cavities where they hatch. Her young will develop to toadlets before bursting out and going about their life. In the Grant Museum there is a Surinam Toad specimen caught after her toadlets (young toads) have vacated but before she has shed her skin to prepare for the next reproductive cycle. The result is a display of dimples that will make your skin crawl if you have trypophobia – an irrational fear of seeing an irregular pattern of holes in places you wouldn’t expect to see them. I think the Surinam Toad is really gross and, when asked by visitors “what is the most disgusting thing you have here?” this is the specimen I show them. But, whilst they are being weirded out by its back, I explain its back story and truly fascinating reproductive habits because, even though I don’t want to look at the toad, I do want to learn about it.

The underside of a Surinam Toad (W332) with its gross back hidden from view. Click here to see examples of its back sacks, if you dare.

There are a lot of objects in the Grant Museum that are equal parts disgusting and interesting. That is very much to be expected when your collection centres around objects used to study anatomy and collected by Victorian scientists for whom “squeamish” was something that happened to other people. Of course, not everyone thinks that the objects in the Grant Museum are gross, some people do only see scientific objects of historical importance. I am not one of those people, but I still love working in the Grant and sharing its objects with visitors. Even the ones I don’t like looking at, or rather, especially the ones that I don’t like looking at because they are all valuable objects with interesting histories that tell us something incredible about the world. For this blog post, I have chosen my top five (only five!) grossest objects from the Grant Museum so that I can explain why I also think they are remarkable.

  1. The Surinam Toad, which we have already covered, though I would also like to point out that the male toad embeds the female’s eggs on her back whilst she is doing somersaults so, on top of everything else, this species has pretty good aim.
  2. The Jar of Assorted Lizards – you may be familiar with the Jar of Moles but, one shelf down, there are some assorted lizards which I think are cooler but they don’t get as much attention because they don’t have as good of a PR guy. There are a lot of jars containing multiple specimens in the museum, which may seem odd because you can’t really get a good look at the things inside them. This technique was used, however, because putting things in jars can be expensive and, having lots of jars requires a lot of storage space. So, if you were storing your specimens, not because you wanted to look at them but, because you wanted to study them you could be a bit more practical and put them all in the same jar. Jars of multiple specimens would have been used to conduct repeat experiments or for class demonstrations or practicals (take one and pass it on). I like these objects because they are a great example of how the Museum collection was originally a teaching collection, even if the thought of ever reaching my hand into a jar is not one I enjoy dwelling on.

    Jar of Assorted Lizards (X1286). How many lizards can you count? (There are no prizes.)

  3. The Exploded Skulls – when I first started working at the museum, I thought these were art pieces (which is not a bad guess as the Museum often displays pieces of art inspired by the collection). They look very CSI and it is a tad unnerving to see a skull displayed so that it looks as though it has been ripped to pieces. But, these are actually examples of an ingenious technique designed to solve a teaching problem. Let’s say, hypothetically, you wanted to teach your students about horse skulls. You could bring a horse skull to show them but it might be difficult to demonstrate that the skull is comprised of individual bones. Instead, you could bring your students a little pile of horse skull bones and they could examine the individual pieces but they then might struggle to work out which piece was which or imagine the skull as a whole. Beauchene was a technique developed in the 19thC in France where the skull is taken a part and then fixed back together using wires producing what looks like a skull mid way through and explosion. It allows you to see the skull as a whole and as being comprised of separate pieces simultaneously and even to remove single pieces of skull. These skulls look like Halloween ornaments but are also ingenious teaching tools. 

    An exploded cod skull (V1486). Learn how to make one here.

  4. The Negus Collection – this collection draws quite a lot of attention and I find it interesting to listen in on visitor conversations as they work out what each of the animal heads are. The specimens in the collection are really good examples of things that you don’t want to look at but can’t tear yourself away from. They contain so much information and allow you to see and incredible amount of detail, but I really can’t get over how meaty they look. Victor Negus, the doctor who prepared these specimens used them to study the throat, in doing so he discovered cures for a number of diseases and also understood, for the first time, the evolution of the larynx and how it enabled us to produce speech. Some people, particularly children, find the display a bit upsetting (there is a bunny rabbit in the collection, after all) as, of all the objects in the Museum, this one does seem to be the clearest reminder that this science was conducted on a lot of dead animals. But, it is also a good example of how important this collection was to science and medicine at the time. I like to explain Negus’s discoveries to visitors because it starts a conversation about how these objects were once used and the scientific learning they facilitated.

    An example of a crocodile head from the Negus Collection (X1211). Is it laughing at you? Only in your nightmares.

  5. The Flying Squirrel – this specimen, to be quite frank, looks like a tiny, shrivelled alien. Unfortunately, the preserving fluid in this specimen is running very low and serves as a vivid reminder that all of the specimens in the Museum require a lot of care. Currently the Grant is undergoing a long term project, called Project Pickle, to conserve the wet specimens in need of a top up. But, until this specimen’s jar is topped up he is going to look a bit sad and cold to me.

So, those are what I consider to be the grossest objects in the Grant. They are also some of my favourite objects as they each tell us a lot of nature or the historical context of the collection, or how the collection is studied now. There are many other objects in the Grant that are bit unsettling, why don’t you tweet us your favourites with the hashtag #grossestthinginthegrant and we will send you back an interesting fact about them.

Museum Audio Guide Project

By uctzcbr, on 21 March 2017

I have been a student engager for almost a year now and the more time I spend in each of the museums, the more I come to realise that there’s an incredible amount to learn about them. Obviously, a museum with 30,000+ objects in it contains a lot of knowledge, but, even beyond that, there are so many more ways of studying and thinking about each object and collection than I ever imagined. Each museum is bursting with questions about not only the objects they house but their histories and the lives of the people who made and worked in them. So, after each of my shifts, I have been writing down all of the questions that I have been asked by visitors or thought of myself whilst wandering around and I have done my best to answer them. The resulting catalogue of information is enormous. It is too much knowledge to fit on traditional, tiny museum placards and too much for any one student engager to learn and recite for visitors (not least because each of the museums is only open for four hours at a time). Thus, the UCL Museum Audio Guide Project was born.

This project, funded and encouraged by UCL Culture, will produce three sets of podcasts, one for each of the museums, to act as audio tour guides. They will be free, downloadable from your usual podcasting app, and tailorable to your visit. Each museum will have a short tour of only an hour, and an extended cut closer to two and a half hours (which is still the tip of iceberg, really) as well as a number of themed tours. For example, the Grant Museum will have an evolutionary biology themed tour which will tell listeners all about the history of evolutionary theory and the role the Grant played in its development.

Now, I am not an expert in Evolutionary Biology, nor in Egyptology, Anatomy or Art. Luckily, I have had a lot of help making the audio guides and, so far, have interviewed a number of researchers and members of staff at each of the museums. I have spoken to Jon Thompson of the Slade School of Fine Art; Debbie Challis at the Petrie Museum;  Stacy Hackner, Max Pinarello and Alice Stevenson from the Institute of Archeology; Professor Joe Cain, Head of Science and Technology Studies at UCL; and Sarah Doherty from the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Each of their interviews will make it into the audio guides along with many others so that listeners will get to learn about the objects from world leaders and experts.

Planning and recording the interviews has been excellent and I have learnt a lot about each of the museums already. Just this week, I spoke to Sarah Doherty, a Ceramicist and Archaeologist, for over an hour and a half just about pots. I did not realise there was so much to learn about pots. As it turns out, shards of pottery can be used to understand almost every aspect of Ancient Egyptian life from their diets to their lifestyles to their technological advancements. I have also learnt that you can do an entire PhD on the tibia bone because it, too, can tell archaeologists incredible things about the lives of people thousands of years ago.

Learning about the fascinating museum collections has been the best bit of the audio guide project (which is easy to say because editing is boring and takes ages) but I still have a way to go. The collections at UCL are enormous and so, even with the restrictive time limit of two and a half hours of material, I have many more interviews scheduled and planned. Unfortunately, the first audio guide isn’t likely to be ready for another few months but this does mean there is still plenty of time for you to get involved.

Do you have a question about the museums? And, I mean any question, from “How old is this object?” to “Why are these things all in this cabinet together?” to “Who found this?”, then tweet me (@hashtagcerys) and we’ll put your question (and its answer) into the audio guide.

When tasked to find a photo, I thought I’d find the specimen with the biggest ears (for listening).